I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord De Mauley for arranging this short debate. I always feel humble when speaking in your Lordships’ House—particularly on this occasion, when practically everyone who has spoken before me has held a senior rank. I held the lowliest rank, both in the OTC and the CCF, and as a police special constable. However, the first two gave me the opportunity to see the value of RFCAs from the bottom up, so to speak, and I found a further perspective when visiting a number of them while performing my duties as high sheriff of Kent. This perspective, of course, is also shared by lord lieutenants and deputy lieutenants, as has been mentioned a number of times in this debate. On the back of those and other experiences, I should like to make a couple of quick points.
First, the experience of one particular high sheriff visit remains with me—to a couple, just one man and one woman, responsible for 70 young sea cadets. Almost all these young people were latch-key kids, with one or both parents working when they got home from school. As cadets, they were removed from the temptation of being on the streets as gang members, with crime and drugs an everyday occurrence, and were instead given membership of an organisation that provided them with companionship, structure and the chance to build their personal confidence as a member of a team.
The couple responsible had significant influence in the local community, which did its best to support them financially and in kind. Therefore, I suggest that any reclassification of the RFCAs must be mindful of the value provided by similar local communities, and that any restructuring should not disempower them, superimpose any further regulation at grass-roots level or alter their scheme of association.
Secondly, RFCAs currently enjoy critical links to business through regional business groups; the importance of these links cannot be overemphasised. The theory of asking for the employer and the employee to have trust and understanding that the role will be kept open, and remuneration and promotion opportunities sustained, when a senior manager is called up for a six-month tour of duty seems pretty straightforward. The actuality is far from it—a situation that could be worsened if there is any severance of the current regulations, which would impact on our RFCA functions and could be detrimental to the Armed Forces covenant.
Thirdly, I have had personal, professional and commercial experience of the MoD’s track record in managing property. For 15 years I was on the board of a company that provided short-term residential accommodation to MoD personnel, some seven and a half properties at any given time. I saw how a mixture of civil servants, civilian contractors and military personnel from all three services were being asked to make commercial decisions for which they had no training or qualification and to which they were not best suited. When we suggested embedding our staff in the department concerned to facilitate the process, we were rebuffed. The final act of this particular play was the invocation of a judicial review to ensure that a tender document could be reissued within a level commercial playing field and the MoD’s own terms of reference. So the suggestion that the MoD might become further involved in the volunteer and cadet estate, which I believe the report is suggesting, is something I would hesitate to recommend.
On the basis of the above examples, I ask the Minister to encourage the powers that be to leave the current RFCA structure and classification as it is.